Here’s a fun conversation starter you can use at your next dinner party: What makes someone want to grow up and be a humor writer for a living?
The answer, of course, is raging childhood anxiety. The world was a scary place for my 10-year-old self, but I also knew by that age that jokes could help tame the fear. To me, making people laugh was the closest I could get to having a superpower, the best way I felt I could contribute to making the world a slightly better place.
I’m now in my 11th year as a professional humor writer, and just as in that famous poem that everyone misquotes, that has made all the difference. I have spent over a decade shoving all my anxiety down my computer’s throat and am the happier for it. Instead of pills, I have boob jokes.
But then came 2016.
Followed by the first half of 2017.
And it is becoming harder and harder to find the humor in anything. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Oh, just the Evil League of Evil taking control of our government! Ha! Ha!
No matter how good the joke is these days, it doesn’t seem up to the task of competing in this post-Trump nightmare dimension we’ve found ourselves in, where serious people are seriously discussing “alternative facts” on serious news programs. What’s black and white and spread all over? Fake news!
Don’t get me wrong. This new administration has been great for the comedy world at large. Trump has single-handedly breathed new life into Saturday Night Live, and everyone from Stephen Colbert to Samantha Bee to John Oliver is knocking it out of the park. I can only imagine the creative energy in their writers’ rooms after yet another stupefying headline about some member of Trump’s inner circle. Misery loves company, but not as much as it loves a company of comedy writers.
They’re proving night after night that we are still capable of the occasional laugh despite being at one another’s throats when it comes to politics. But it’s an uncomfortable laugh. A darker laugh. A borderline nihilistic laugh. Like the weird, uncontrollable laughter that sometimes happens at a funeral, or when you realize EPA rollbacks are going to destroy this planet even more quickly than we thought.
But then there’s me, the lowly, isolated freelance humorist. Sitting at my tiny desk in a corner of our dining room, since I gave up my home office so my children would have a place to “sleep.” Staring at a blank screen after night-night, trying to come up with a funny way to describe the slow, agonizing death of the American middle class.
Your mother’s so poor she works three jobs and still can’t make a living wage. Ha! Ha!
We’ve gone through bad times before as a country, of course. This is the great American experiment, after all. There are bound to be missteps and outright mistakes. But this time it feels different, like the beginning chapter of a badly written, yet still terrifying dystopian future novel. We have a narcissist reality-TV star with nuclear codes and his billionaire Cabinet who are trying their best to slip a version of The Hunger Games into some congressional bill about farming subsidies.
And even if I do feel that first rare tingle of a joke coming on these days, it dies before it can fully bloom, because I know someone somewhere will hate me for it. Hey, how many cousins does it take to screw in a light bulb? I don’t know. None of mine are talking to me anymore.
Still, humor seems more important than ever in the face of humorless Trump supporters who can’t take a joke and yet are capable of sadistic glee at the sight of all of us precious snowflakes wringing our hands in our pink knitted hats. But the joke is on them. And us. And everyone. Because we are all going to die in a global thermonuclear war! Ha! Ha!
So, this is my daily struggle. What is the point of my little jokes when everything feels at stake? Why did the humor columnist cross the border? To procure affordable drugs for her sick child and smuggle them back into the United States.
In the end, life has to go on. Even if the world is doomed, my toddler will still need seven sippy-cup refills before noon, and my baby will still need to head-butt my nose for mysterious yet very important baby reasons, and the laundry still has to be switched out because I will not be heading to hell in that handbasket with dirty underwear on.
So I spend my days chasing my children around, and then I read them a bedtime story from The Handmaid’s Tale, whispering to my infant daughter, “I’m sorry your uterus is a preexisting condition” before kissing her goodnight.
And once all that is taken care of, I will sit in front of my computer, like I have for the past 11 years, and write jokes. I will then delete those jokes because they are horrible. And then I will write more jokes.
Because I have to do something.